Kelis, the girl whose milkshake once brought all the boys to the yard, was back in town Monday at the Park West. “Milkshake,” her massive 2003 hit, was still on the menu, but its blend of sex, defiance and drums is now just one ingredient for a multifaceted artist.
The singer made the most of a voice that lives in the basement, with its husky tone and dark shadings. She adapted it to countless styles with a six-piece band flexible enough to go wherever she directed with a flick of a hip or a nod. The energetic performances were at times undercut by languorous pacing, as Kelis paused to chat with fans she recognized from Instagram exchanges and other tour stops. Yet this conversation-in-the-living-room aura suited an intimate show that was all about the comforts of domesticity and motherhood.
The title of her latest album, “Food” doubles as an ad for Kelis’ Cooking Channel show. It also symbolizes the notion that music, family and home are forms of spiritual nourishment. So it was appropriate that she framed the set with a cover of “Feeling Good,” a Broadway song definitively performed by Nina Simone in the ‘60s. In Simone’s version, it became a song of emancipation, and Kelis – at 34, and a decade removed from her biggest hit – embraced its air of possibility. “It’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,” she sang over saucy sax and trumpet.
Then she took it right back to childbirth on “Breakfast,” and contemplated what kind of wealth is worth chasing in “Millionaire.” The music clearly connected with images of Kelis’ youth in Harlem, where jazz, soul, gospel and the aroma from mom’s kitchen shaped a mind set and a sound: organic, churchy, with lots of unison horns riffing and high-stepping over beats sourced from West Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
“Jerk Ribs” took Kelis to her hometown streets and their syncopations, her father’s advice “to look for the melody in everything” coursing through the tune. It was all very earth-motherly, but it wasn’t precious. It moved and rumbled, with its bass line rubbing against rippling drums, while horns peppered the arrangement with a counter melody.
To add to the downhome atmosphere, Kelis pulled out a book of her lyrics, which she would hold in front of her as if she were reading a story to her audience. Sometimes it sounded like she was. On a cover of Labi Siffre’s ‘70s R&B nugget “Bless the Telephone,” the band stripped down to two interlocking guitars while Kelis sang of consolation and friendship.
For “Friday Fish Fry,” she simply let it rip. “Give me what I need!” she pleaded over tent-revival tambourine and an answering chorus of voices. On “Cobbler” she sailed into the stratosphere after declaring, “You make me hit notes that I never sing.” Where did that come from? Even Kelis’ voice sounded renewed.
Kelis set list Monday at Park West:
1. Feeling Good (Nina Simone cover)
5. Friday Fish Fry
7. Lil Star
9. Forever Be
10. Trick Me
12. Bless the Telephone (Labi Siffre cover)
14. Jerk Ribs
15. 4th of July (Fireworks)
17. Feeling Good reprise (Nina Simone cover)